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Web design seems to be considered rocket science and a mythical art form by many small business people, who simply have no understanding of what’s involved. What is worse there are numerous web developers and design agencies that continue to perpetuate this myth, charge exorbitant amounts of money and deliver poor results. Ok the websites might look spectacular, but for a small business (any business actually) results mean delivering sales.

So lets get started. I’m going to debunk several myths, try and explain the methodologies that should be used in web design and give business owners some empowering questions that they can use to either vet potential developers or quiz their existing one.

This article isn’t intended to be a rant at either business owners or developers, but to simply try and help both achieve their goals. Business owners want a cost effective investment in a website and developers want to be paid fairly for what they do.

First lets start from a business perspective. Unfortunately it seems the majority of web developers do not do this.

A websites primary function is to do one of three things.

  • For an e-commerce (shopping) site it should provide a seamless experience for a customer to enact a transaction and the business owner to fulfil the order and meet all accounting requirements. The cost of the site and its ongoing upkeep and maintenance should be factored into the cost of goods sold as a direct cost. Sales less direct costs = gross profit. Simple formula to work out the profitability of a site.
  • A brochure-ware (usually just a few static pages – about, contact, products and services) site’s primary reason for existence is to simply state who you are and how to contact you. It should if done right have as good as possible SEO and you should be able to measure the number of enquiries received from the site. The cost of the site and its ongoing upkeep and maintenance should be factored into the cost of acquiring these new customers with a ratio of customers won over total enquiries.
  • A educational and news site (often utilising a blog) is really just a better brochure-ware site with more opportunity for SEO and also social engagement. Blog and news posts can be constructed to deliver keyword searches, and generate enquiries and contact for your products and services. The cost of the site and its ongoing upkeep and maintenance should be factored into the cost of acquiring these new customers with a ratio of customers won over total enquiries.

A business MUST approach this with the same business intelligence they would approach any other marketing or advertising opportunity. The marginal gain from new customers MUST be more than the overall cost – or the ROI is negative. No one is in business to lose money. Yet it seems common-sense decisions go out the window when choosing a web developer. A web developer should be able to help a business make the decision based on the economic value of the site to the business. And a business owner (who wouldn’t employ a sales assistant to stand in a corner doing nothing) shouldn’t be buying an expensive selling tool only to leave it standing in the corner doing nothing. To be fair to web developers many business owners are their own worst enemies here and do not understand this paragraph. Thus they allow developers to charge way to much for ineffective websites that do not produce $ results.

Understanding the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC)

SDLC chart

Unfortunately it seems many developers also have forgotten this – or conveniently ignore it when talking to gullible business owners (of which there are plenty waiting to have their wallets lightened). I’m not going to explain the SDLC in depth here – use Google or Bing for that!

While some take a waterfall approach to design, the more accurate approach is the circle – with an ongoing cycle that can span years.

As a minimum I would expect a web developer to follow this basic outline – and for a business owner to be prepared to pay on these approximate milestones.

  1. Requirements Analysis and Design. If a business owner is not able to do this themselves then they should definitely be prepared to pay their developer to assist them to do this. Setting out up front the goals for the site, the functional requirements and the actual stages of development provide a sound platform that any competent developer can then quote to – giving the business owner the ability to play the field. A good business analyst will develop a design requirement that they can quote to as well as any other developers.
  2. Initial development – usually a 50% or similar deposit is required to get the large amount of backend work completed. Host setup, often domain registration and business name registration, graphic design and image and other site asset compilation and generation, back end configuration and very importantly documentation.
  3. Go Live. the point where the site is up and running and visible to the public. At this point all social media connections should be made, search engine optimisation complete (for what is there now)
  4. Ongoing maintenance. This is all too forgotten component. Web software is constantly being updated and patched for security issues, additional features, bug elimination and so on. It should cost less with a good Maintenance Service Level Agreement (SLA) to keep o a site updated than to repair it when something goes wrong or to to do a massive number of major upgrades several years later.

Theming – function and form.

While it is possible to have function and form, e.g. great looking websites that provide great UI for the user as well as looking great, it has to be said function is more important than form. If budget is a consideration than definitely drop theming and focus on function. its not good having a snazzy looking website with poor navigation, difficult shopping cart completion etc. These days a professional quality theme can be purchased for WordPress, Drupal or Joomla for around US$50 and a good developer should be able to configure that to suit your site in 1-2 hours. And to be honest if you are a small business owner looking to invest less than $5K into a website than there is no reason to choose anything other than one of these solutions. They are popular for a reason.

Finally great content beats pretty graphics every time. People will be attracted to your business by what you say not what you look like.

So what can a business owner do to ensure they don’t get ripped off?

First, understand your own business, and set goals for the website. What does it need to do to assist your business grow, attract customers, sell products and so on? What results do you need to measure this by? And over how long? Calculate your own ROI.

Second, ensure that the web developers you are looking at can answer these questions:

  • Can you assist me to develop a requirements specification that i can take to any web developer for quoting?
  • What measurement tools can you put in place to ensure that my goals for this site are being measured?
  • What stages of development do you require payment on?
  • What is the total component cost of my site in theming?
  • What documentation do you provide?
  • What training do you provide and how much does it cost for additional training?

Authors note and disclaimer. We have been developing software and websites for over 20 years. While we approach all our clients development needs with best practice in mind, many clients choose to cut costs by cutting corners, don’t complete projects and in many cases don’t choose to follow all our advice. That is their prerogative.

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Ian's three key issues of business highlighted areas of my business that I need to consider more.

Feedback from Free Business Seminar Jan 2013

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